By Richard M. Crabtree
Jesus has commissioned the church to “go into all the world” and make disciples, and all the world certainly includes small towns. According to the 2000 Census, a population of 1,000 to 10,000 constitutes a “small town.” The majority of us in Christian ministry will spend a lifetime investing in small towns, so the question is: How can we allow God to make the most of our time in small-town America?
Of my 47 years of ministry, all but five have been in the small-town, rural setting. I have found the following keys most effective while doing small-town ministry:
Focus on One Thing and Do It Well
Ben Merold advises leaders of small-town churches to find a niche. In other words, do one thing that is unique to your church and the community in which you live, and do it well. Do one thing well. Do not do what other people are doing, only better. Do something that you do to the exclusion of others, and do it with quality and excellence. Love and commitment grab the attention of the people in your small town.
Achieving this will take commitment from every leader in the church. The niche you fill must be a priority. There must be commitment to it, and an investment of resources to sustain it with excellence, not just as an outreach but as a ministry.
For 30 years the Odon (Indiana) Christian Church has been known for its daycare and preschool ministry. The local school system highly recommends it. People, not only in the small town of Odon but also in the surrounding towns, speak highly of this ministry. As a result of this consistent commitment to quality in Christian education and care for preschoolers, it has become the church’s No. 1 evangelistic tool. The majority of young families and small children who find Christ through this church came first through the daycare and preschool ministry. It is the niche for this growing church in a small town of 1,200 people.
People in small towns grieve over losses, celebrate births, and take pride in their communities and schools. All of these provide opportunities to minister.
The town of Loogootee, Indiana, population 2,200, hosts an event called Summerfest each June. Despite high heat and humidity, many folks gather on Main Street to enjoy deep-fried food, watch their kids and grandkids participate in pageants, walk in the parade, cool off with a lemon shakeup, and—most of all—visit with neighbors and former classmates. There is a concert each evening, and it all culminates with fireworks.
When our new church campus in Loogootee was deciding how we might get involved, a unique need came to light: cleanup. So instead of setting up a booth or entering the parade along with all the other churches, we descend on Main Street with gloves and trash bags after everything has ended. We pick up litter and empty trash barrels. It takes only a short amount of time, with lots of laughter thrown in.
The festival organizers are always exhausted by this time of the night, so they greet us warmly and thank us profusely for this small act of kindness that has become our niche. They publicly thank us on social media, and we have found this opens the door for us to invite people to our campus where they can hear the gospel that propels us to such simple actions.
Your church’s niche might be a Celebrate Recovery ministry, or Narcotics Anonymous, or ministering to grieving families. Determining your niche requires getting to know your town and finding what sets you apart from other churches. Always keep in mind your niche should open a door to share the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ with the people in your town.
Whatever your niche is, be aware it will have a shelf life. Make sure the niche remains a means to an end and not an end within itself. When the horse is dead, dismount. When the niche appears to be losing effectiveness, find another one.
Keep People Clearly in Focus
Jesus loved people. If we are to be like Christ, we must continually show compassion to individuals. In the small-town setting, we can become very familiar with people and track whether they attend church. Many people in a small town see themselves as religious but never attend a Sunday-morning service. We have known these people for years and see them on a regular basis in restaurants, local businesses, and at school athletic events and concerts. In small-town America, it’s easy to see people as residents of the community but not as lost without Christ.
In the few years I spent in a metropolitan area, I cared for and ministered to people with many problems and issues. But those same problems exist in the small-town setting. Churches in small towns need to be prepared to deal with today’s dysfunction and sin. Marriage problems, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, sexual-orientation concerns, depression, suicide, terminal illness, and a host of other issues all require the ministry of the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. Every problem I dealt with while ministering to people in a major metropolitan area I have also encountered in small-town America.
It is imperative we see people as Jesus sees them . . . as people with real needs that can be met and satisfied only by Jesus Christ. The economies in small-town America may be declining, but not the need for Jesus. Effective ministries in small towns must be passionate about giving people a daily encounter with Jesus through words and deeds.
Pray and Keep Praying
Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray (Luke 5:16). The apostles prayed, the early church prayed, and Paul exhorted us to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17). And in Ephesians 6:18 the church is told to “always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” To be effective in a small town, it is essential for a church to devote itself to prayer.
Before Redemption Christian Church in Jasper, Indiana, launched its Loogootee campus, the elder team met for extensive prayer in the building that would house the Loogootee campus. Redemption-Loogootee’s core membership also walked through the entire town praying for God to help us in the ministry of making disciples.
Bryan Sanders has been ministering with Sandborn (Indiana) First Christian Church for 16 years. This growing church in a community of 400 people is committed to making disciples. A key to their effectiveness is to keep the church engaged together in meaningful prayer. Effective ministry in a small town requires the church to continually pray, requesting God’s strength, wisdom, and an opening into the doors and lives of people who live there. Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
My wife, Ruth, and I have spent more than four decades ministering in a small town. We are thankful for our calling and have no regrets. Making disciples in a small town is kingdom work. The population and economy in small-town America may be declining, but not the need for the gospel. The need for leaders and members of small-town churches in America to dedicate themselves to effective ministry has never been greater.
Small towns have always been significant to the Restoration Movement’s identity, and we mustn’t forget that. Stephen Witmer in “Ministry in Small Towns: Worth a Lifetime Investment” (accessible at www.thegospelcoalition.org) wrote, “To the extent Christians forget the small places, we fail them.” A congregation in a small town must not allow its vision for effective ministry to be determined by the population sign at the edge of town. Let’s pray that some of our best, young, enthusiastic, and visionary ministers will embrace the small town. Churches in small towns can be effective in carrying out our commission to make disciples in all the world.
Richard M. Crabtree serves as the Loogootee campus pastor of Redemption Christian Church, which also has a campus in Jasper, Indiana.